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Sam Cooke & Dream Boogie: (new Jan. 24/06)
A new biography of "The best singer who ever lived"


Sam Cooke possessed one of the greatest and most distinctive voices in post-war popular music. Who says? Music producer Jerry Wexler, one of the giants of R&B, soul, rock and roots music simply described Sam as "the best singer who ever lived, no contest". Ray Charles (who had his first hits recording for Wexler) said Cooke "never hit a wrong note".

He was one of the originators of soul music, and one of the first black artists to take financial and artistic control of his own career. His great song "A Change Is Gonna Come" was a reflection of his involvement and support for the Civil Rights Movement. A complex man, with a complex life, one of the great poplular music artists of his time ended his life, shot to death in a rundown motel, a victim (most likely) of his weaknesses and his worst side.

Peter Guralnick, one of the pre-eminent popular music writers, and possibly the man who knows the most about Sam Cooke's life and career, has just published a 700-page biography of Cooke, entitled Dream Boogie. It's earned much credit for its research, and his extensive recreation of Sam's life and times.

Any reviews I've seen agree that one of the highlights of the book is its description of the black gospel music world in the 1950's. Sam was one of the biggest stars of this world during his seven years singing with the Soul Stirrers, and for many, it remains his finest music.

If the Sam Cooke you know of or remember is the smooth (but gorgeous-sounding) pop singer of "You Send Me", "Wonderful World", etc. there is much, much else to this singer.

Cooke began singing gospel at the age of 15, and became a huge figure in the music. It was his voice: smooth, powerful, gritty, gorgeous, desperate -- all at once. It was his looks, his energy, his songwriting (he wrote many of the group's hits). Everything made Sam  a true "Soul Stirrer".

His recordings:
To me, there are two tremendous albums featuring Sam that bookend his career, and showcase the two opposite-but-the-same extremes of his performance. 

The Great 1955 Shrine Concert
Originally released in 1993, but still available remains one of the best windows into the 1950's gospel world, and to understanding the sheer power and artistry of Sam Cooke. It's 74 minutes of a concert recorded in "the largest auditorium" in the U.S. at the time (in Los Angeles), and features besides Sam and the Soul Stirrers, several others of the top gospel acts of the time. It surely must be the best gospel CD around.

An enthusiastic reviewer on Amazon's website described the take-no-prisoners version of "Get Away Jordan" by Dorothy Love Coates and the Original Gospel Harmonettes as "maybe the single best recording of ANY song I've ever heard in my life". The Pilgrim Travellers, Brother Joe May, and others all take the show to levels most performers would die for. And in the middle of it are three songs by The Soul Stirrers that should convince anyone why Guralnick and others till marvel at the power and skill of Sam Cooke. The CD -- like the next one -- also clearly demonstrate the energy co-dependence of the performers and an audience that is completely enveloped in the show.

Live at the Harlem Square Club.
Recorded in January, 1963 (but unreleased until 1984) at a black club in Miami, Cooke is backed by the greatest R&B sax player of the time, King Curtis. In his original (1984) liner notes, Guralnick wrote that, "it's rare that an album can cause us to radically reassess a major artist, particularly one who has been dead for 20 years".

This is the same raw, shouting, soulful, Cooke -- with 8 more years of performance under his belt -- that was heard on the Shrine concert CD. Both recordings reflect the interaction of the star and the audience, "like he was beating up on them [the audience] to get an orgasm" is how Cooke's friend and business partner, J.W. Alexander described it. The club was packed beyond capacity, and the life and excitement is way beyond anything heard before then on Cooke's hit singles.

The Harlem Square CD has just been re-released, and in the new liner notes, Guralnick reveals that Cooke had just adopted this new live performance style two months previously. The inspiration was a tour of England with another R&B/gospel performer, Little Richard, just returning to the pop world from his five-year gospel "exile". Another inspiraton was likely James Brown's Live at the Apollo recording.

There are many facets to Cooke's musical career, but those are the two CD's I would most recommend.

Other Cooke CD's I'd recommend:

  • Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend, for a good coverage of his pop hits (and a couple of gospel recordings)
  • Night Beat a tremendous, bluesy album recorded in 1962, and also very recently re-released and re-packaged.
  • Sam Cooke's SAR Records Story: a 2-CD collection (one gospel, one pop and soul) containing many of the artists he recorded for his SAR label and some unreleased Cooke recordings
  • ... and almost any good Soul Stirrers collection.

Some links of interest:

Reviews of Dream Boogie:
From The Nation (written by long-time Village Voice music writer Robert Christgau)
ABC News: includes a book excerpt and video interview with author Guralnick
The Guardian